The senses of history

History is textural (as opposed to textual), something I was reminded of while reading a recent blog post from the always articulate and evocative Matt Houlbrook. It reminded me of another post, this one by Will Pooley, which similarly thinks about history in terms of the tactile. The interactions of history become as much about touch as intellectual comprehension.

This post, then, forms my own contribution to this mini-genre of historical thought, inspired by the coincidence that, on the same train journey where I read Matt’s blog, I also read the recent seminar paper that Edmund King gave at the Senate House on ‘British Manuscript Cultures of the First World War’. I wasn’t able to attend the seminar, but the wonders of modern technology (well, a combination of Twitter and email) meant that I was able to read the text the following day.

Among a variety of fascinating sources quoted, one stood out in relation to this question of the textures of history, from a letter from 2nd Lt. Sanders Lewis to his fiancee:

‘So my letters smell like a tobacco store. I am glad … I have been able to give you at last some real taste of the sort of place we live in. Here out of the line the officers’ mess is one wood huts heated by two stoves. There is a long table … and on it candles flicker a shadowy light over the hut at night. A few men are writing letters at one end, two parties are playing bridge at the other … and everywhere med are smoking so that with the shadows flicked on the walls by the candle flames, and the slow columns of pipe and cigarette smoke hanging over our heads, everyone looks dim at ten yards interval.’ [1]

In this quotation, Lewis evokes three of the five senses – smell, sight and touch – to try to describe his experiences to Margaret. As King notes, ‘Describing the material contexts of writing becomes a way of bridging the sensory and temporal divides between writer and recipient.

Lewis was by no means alone in doing this, nor were the senses of hearing and taste to be forgotten. Descriptions of sound were a deeply significant element of men’s letters home in their attempts to describe their experiences to their families. [2] Taste was similarly central to the emotional power of the food parcel from home, as discussed by Rachel Duffett. [3] The senses, all five of them, then, were vitally important to the ways in which the First World War was communicated as an experience at the time.

But what struck me is that, if such evocation of sensory experience acts as a bridge between writer and recipient, it also has the power to act as a bridge between the writer and other readers, in this case the historian who has accessed the letter through an archive. As with the original reader, the descriptions in men’s letters have the potential to show us what we have not experienced ourselves, to share with us a world we do not know.

At the same time, while verbal descriptions remain potentially powerful, other sensory aspects of these manuscripts and objects have been lost. 100 years on, I doubt the smell of tobacco still clings to Lewis’s manuscript. Metaphorical evocations also start to fail. Does the comparison of a bombardment to coal being tipped down a cellar have any meaning for the historian who has never heard either? What does plum and apple jam or Machonocie stew taste like?

Attempts have been made to recreate historic materials which evoke the senses. Rowntree’s experiments with an original 1914 recipe for chocolate had mixed results, while museuological experiments with evoking the sensory nature of the trenches have attracted as much criticism as praise. [4] More successfully, my colleague Iona McCleery’s You Are What You Ate project has been recreating historic recipes as part of a long-term educational project introducing the history of food to audiences throughout West Yorkshire. Films such as The Battle of the Somme allow us to see, if not the battle itself, then the view offered to British civilians of that battle in 1916. Early recordings bring the voices and music of the war years back to life. But as historians we can only access these senses critically and from a distance. Ingredients change with farming practices, the medium deteriorates, introducing visual and aural flaws, the scent of tobacco clinging to a piece of paper fades over time, the paper itself crumbles at the reader’s touch.

History is a sensory discipline and one that is becoming more so as material histories and histories of the body increase their reach and impact. The weight of a wood and canvass stretcher loaded with three sodden blankets and the dead weight of a wounded man is vitally important to my understanding of my historical subjects, even if I have never tried to lift one myself. But, as with all disciplinary developments, this one throws up its own complications and contradictions, giving the practice as much texture and richness as the as the sources themselves. I don’t think historians would have it any other way.

[1]Saunders Lewis to Margaret Gilcriest, 6th February, 1917, quoted in Edmund King, ‘British Manuscript Cultures of the First World War’, paper given to the Paper, Pen and Ink 2: Manuscript Cultures in the Age of Print Research Seminar, London, 18th May, 2015.

[2] Jessica Meyer, Men of War: Masculinity and the First World War in Britain, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, 30-31.

[3] Rachel Duffett, The Stomach for Fighting: Food and the Soldiers of the Great War, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012, 199-205.

[4] Richard Espley, ‘”How much of an ‘experience’ do way the public to receive?”: Trench reconstructions and popular images of the Great War’ in Jessica Meyer (ed), British Popular Culture and the First World War, Leiden: Brill, 2008, 325-349.

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